The Third International after Lenin

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The necessary genius

Phil Ochs, Fondly Recalled, Is Never Really Lost

Another December, another Phil Ochs birth anniversary. Wow, he would have been 69 this year. It’s also time for the stream of annual Ochs birthday concerts which have been occurring all over the nation each December since the singer’s untimely death in 1976. The movement has not had Phil Ochs to call upon for a long time, but none on the Left have forgotten his impact – and the impact his music continues to have upon us.

From the view of contemporary times, it is perhaps Phil Ochs (1940-1976), among other ‘60’s folkies, which speaks most directly to us. His was a visceral kind of protest music. Ochs maintained an affiliation with the IWW throughout his adult life, though he was a self-described socialist who demonstrated an affinity toward anarchism; he detested the greed of capital and this poured out of his songs. Ochs was active in the fertile period that bridged the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War periods, with those of Women’s Liberation, Black Power, AIM, militant environmentalism and Gay rights. For an artist of conscience, there was much work to do, so Phil Ochs’ songs called for peace, equal rights and an egalitarian society. His songs damned the establishments that begat the murder of our progressive heroes and allowed organized labor to forget its true mission. He cried for our nation and praised its promise.

Ochs’ songs unashamedly revealed our faults but also offered the means to rectify them. Phil was a presence at demonstrations and other radical actions, not merely a voice on a record. He traveled to Hazzard, Kentucky during the bloody strikes in the earliest 60s, boldly performing for the pickets and in ear-shot of the threatening goon squads. Several songs document these struggles, including the hauntingly beautiful “No Christmas in Kentucky”. Shortly thereafter, Phil became entrenched in Civil Rights, traveling to many points on the Klan’s radar. His periods in the Deep South are chronicled in songs such as “Freedom Riders” and the brutally blunt “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and “Too Many Martyrs, the Ballad of Medgar Evers.” His awareness of the power of song was keen, brazen.

In March of 1963, Ochs wrote in Broadside magazine of the importance of protest songs in the changing times of the day. It is amazing to note just how relevant this statement remains. Ochs described the core value of topical song – issue-based music relevant to progressive activism of the time in which it is created. But he also clarified, quite profoundly for such a young man, that the media stood in direct contrast to this music and that the songwriter needed to scour the news reports in order to find his or her material. It was – and is – a worthy duty. In this sense, Ochs’ statement lifted from the well of time stands as universal:
“The Need For Topical Music”
By Phil Ochs

Before the days of television and mass media, the folksinger was often a traveling newspaper spreading tales through music.

It is somewhat ironic that in this age of forced conformity and fear of controversy the folksinger may be assuming the same role. The newspapers have unfortunately told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the cold war truth, so help them, advertisers…

The folksingers of today must face up to a great challenge in their music. Folk music is an idiom that deals with realities and ever there is an urgent need for Americans to look deeply into themselves and their actions and musical poetry is perhaps the most effective mirror available…One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies…

Every newspaper headline is a potential song, and it is the role of an effective songwriter to pick out the material that has the interest, significance and sometime humor adaptable to music. A good writer must be able to picture the structure of a song and as hundreds of minute ideas race through his head, he must reflect the superfluous and trite phrases for the cogent, powerful terms. Then after the first draft is completed, the writer must be his severest critic, constantly searching for a better way to express every line of his song.

I think there is a coming revolution (pardon my French) in folk music …The news today is the natural resource that folk music must exploit in order to have the most vigorous folk process possible. (1)

From Greenwich Village coffee houses to the national stage, Ochs sang his protest loudly. While his first two albums set the standard for topical singers henceforth, both All the News That’s Fit to Sing and I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore offer stark moments of beauty. “One More Parade”, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” and, later, “The War is Over” gave us anthems that would carry the peace movement. “The Power and the Glory” spoke of his pride in our nation’s mission and greatness—even as the FBI began an investigation of him that would span a decade and fill 410 pages. “Cops of the World” spit back into the faces of the reactionary government. Ochs was nobody’s fool.

The music kept coming and Phil Ochs stood as a profound voice for his generation. Over the next few years, we’d hear the haunting “Changes” and on “Crucifixion” he emoted about the loss of John Kennedy, but wasn’t he also singing about the loss of innocence, perhaps conscience itself? When Bob Dylan had moved into other realms, focusing his lyrical content on matters of the personal as opposed to the social, Ochs maintained his stand as a topical artist, even as he dug deep inside. He never failed to strive for a wider sound, however, and in 1967 he relocated to the west coast, seeking change and the potential for a new scope both artistically and as a means toward the healing of his long-term emotional turmoil. Upon arrival, his producer paired him with pianist-arranger Lincoln Mayorga, already a fixture in LA studios as a member of the busy studio aggregation loosely known as the Wrecking Crew. The opportunity to work with Ochs posed an interesting challenge:
Phil wanted some kind of classical styles behind his singing for “I’ve Had Her”, one of the songs on ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’, his first LA album. I suggested that I would incorporate different composers’ styles, changing them up with each verse. You know, Bach behind one, Schumann behind another, and so on. He loved the idea (2)

From this start, Mayorga’s work with Ochs would be continuous. His keyboard playing and rhythm section arrangement helped Ochs to realize his visions, and he began to compose on piano, thereby incorporating more complex harmonies into his music. Mayorga often played a multitude of variations behind the folksinger’s endless streams of verses for each song. But he also contributed ideas beyond the styles of European concert music. On “Miranda”, the sound became that of the 1920s and to solidify this, Mayorga brought in a stream of great Jazz musicians from that era including the legendary reeds player Mattie Matlock and drummer Nick Fatool. Fatool’s syncopated services were retained for the song the album would perhaps become best known for, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, which made wry commentary on the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese, which occurred in front of an apartment complex full of witnesses who refused to come to her rescue. Ochs used this vehicle to illustrate alienation in society and darkly mocked it by singing over ragtime piano, flailing tenor banjo and tap-dancing drum breaks. The song was a smash on college campuses across country, yet true fame eluded Ochs. This coupled with emotional turmoil wore him down over the next few years. As Mayorga explained, “Phil saw himself as the artist trying to destroy himself. He was in a bad place.”

Phil Ochs had been a major part of the protest surrounding the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, performing his best topical material right in Lincoln Park. Later, he was called in as a witness for the defense on behalf of the Chicago 8, speaking sardonically of how he bought and paid for Pigasus, the pig he and the Yippies were nominating for president. But Ochs told anyone who’d listen that he felt he spiritually died in Chicago, as the police riot inflicted pain upon democracy itself. Working in concert with the Yippies’ vision of protest as a kind of theatre-of-the-absurd, Ochs was sure to help turn the defendants’ very trial into a spectacle. The following excerpts of the actual trial transcript, wherein Ochs is questioned by defense attorney William Kuntsler need no doctoring for they reflect the spirit of the times—and of the revolutionary acts they were involved in—quite clearly:
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, Mr. Ochs, can you indicate what kind of songs you sing?

THE WITNESS: I write all my own songs and they are just simple melodies with a lot of lyrics. They usually have to do with current events and what is going on in the news. You can call them topical songs, songs about the news, and then developing into more philosophical songs later.

MR. KUNSTLER: Now, Mr. Ochs, have you ever been associated with what is called the Youth International Party, or, as we will say, the Yippies?

THE WITNESS: Yes. I helped design the party, formulate the idea of what Yippie was going to be, in the early part of 1968.

MR. KUNSTLER: Now, were any of the defendants at the table involved in the formation of the Yippies?

THE WITNESS: Yes, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. -------That’s Jerry Rubin with the headband and Abbie Hoffman--- with the smile.

MR. KUNSTLER:. Did there come a time when Jerry and Abbie discussed their plans?

THE WITNESS: Yes, they did, around the middle of January at Jerry's. Present there, besides Abbie and Jerry, I believe, was Paul Krassner and Ed Sanders. Tim Leary was there at one point. They discussed my singing at the Festival of Life. They asked me to contact other performers to come and sing at the Festival. I talked to Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel. I believe I talked with Judy Collins.

MR. KUNSTLER: After you arrived in Chicago did you have any discussion with Jerry?

THE WITNESS: Yes, I did. We discussed the nomination of a pig for President. We discussed going out to the countryside around Chicago and buying a pig from a farmer and bringing him into the city for the purposes of his nominating speech. I helped select the pig, and I paid for him.

MR. KUNSTLER: Now, did you find a pig at once when you went out?

THE WITNESS: No, it was very difficult. We stopped at several farms and asked where the pigs were.

MR. KUNSTLER: None of the farmers referred you to the police station, did they?

THE WITNESS: No.

PROSECUTOR: Objection!

THE COURT: I sustain the objection.

MR. KUNSTLER: Mr. Ochs, can you describe the pig which was finally bought?

PROSECUTOR: Objection.

THE COURTI sustain the objection.

MR. KUNSTLER: Would you state what, if anything, happened to the pig?

THE WITNESS: The pig was arrested with seven people.

MR. KUNSTLER: What were you doing when you were arrested?

THE WITNESS: We were arrested announcing the pig's candidacy for President. Jerry Rubin was reading a prepared speech for the pig---the opening sentence was something like, "I, Pigasus, hereby announce my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States!"

MR. KUNSTLER: What was the pig doing during this announcement?

PROSECUTOR: Objection!

MR. KUNSTLER: Were you informed by an officer that-- the pig had squealed on you?

PROSECUTOR: Objection! I ask it be stricken.!

THE WITNESS: Yes.

THE COURT: I sustain the objection. When an objection is made do not answer until the Court has ruled. . .

MR. KUNSTLER: Now, I call your attention to Sunday, August 25, 1968. Did you have any occasion to see Jerry Rubin?

THE WITNESS: We walked through the streets following the crowd.

MR. KUNSTLER: And can you describe what you saw as you followed the crowd?

THE WITNESS: They were just chaotic and sort of unformed, and people just continued away from the park and just seemed to move, I think toward the commercial area where the nightclubs are and then police clubs were there too, and it was just a flurry of movement of people all kinds of ways.

PROSECUTOR: If the Court please, the witness was asked what he observed and that was not responsive to the question. If you would simply tell the witness to listen carefully to the question so he can answer the questions.

THE COURT: I did that this morning. TO OCHS:You are a singer but you are a smart fellow, I am sure.

THE WITNESS: Thank you very much. You are a judge and you are a smart fellow.

MR. KUNSTLER: Did you sing a song that day?

THE WITNESS: Yes, "I Ain't Marching Anymore."

MR. KUNSTLER: I am showing you what has been marked at D-147 for identification and I ask you if you can identify that exhibit.

THE WITNESS: This is the guitar I played "I Ain't Marching Anymore" on.

MR. KUNSTLER: Now, would you stand and sing that song so the jury can hear the song that the audience heard that day?

PROSECUTOR: If the Court please, this is a trial in the Federal District Court. It is not a theater. We don't have to sit and listen to the witness sing a song. Let's get on with the trial. I object.

MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, this is definitely an issue in the case. Jerry Rubin has asked for a particular song to be sung. What the witness sang to the audience reflects both on Jerry Rubin's intent and on the mood of the crowd.

THE COURT: I sustain the objection.

MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, he is prepared to sing it exactly as he sang it on that day,

THE COURT: I am not prepared to listen, Mr. Kunstler.

MR. KUNSTLER: Where did you see Abbie Hoffman first that night at the Coliseum?

THE WITNESS: When he raced in front of me on the stage when I was introduced to Ed Sanders. He said, "Here's Phil Ochs," and as I walked forward, Abbie Hoffman raced in front of me and took the microphone and proceeded to give a speech. I was upstaged by Abbie Hoffman.

PROSECUTOR: You say it was at the Coliseum, Abbie Hoffman upstaged you, is that right?

THE WITNESS: Yes. I was walking toward the microphone and he raced in front of me.

MR. SCHULTZ: And he led the crowd in a chant of "Fuck LBJ" didn't he?

THE WITNESS: Yes, yes, I think he did.

MR. SCHULTZ: Now in your plans, did you plan for public fornication in the park?

THE WITNESS: I didn't.

MR. SCHULTZ: In your discussions did you plan for public fornication in the park?

THE WITNESS: No, we did not seriously sit down and plan public fornication in the park.

MR. SCHULTZ: That is all, your Honor.

THE COURT: You may step down. Don't forget your guitar.

THE WITNESS: I won't. (3)


Not only the authorities, but Ochs toyed with fans too. He also mocked his own sense of doom when he titled his 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement. Its cover depicted his own gravestone with the year of death listed as, of course, 1968. Continually plagued by demons, both inner and outer, Ochs struggled with bi-polar disorder, anxiety and alcohol dependence. Often, his performances became strained as lyrics were increasingly forgotten and melodies faded. In his later period, gigs became arguments with the audience. Ochs would see the end of the decade as a metaphor for the demise of the movement.

Ochs had become very pessimistic by 1970. The series of mishaps at his Carnegie Hall concert that year would eventually be released on record as Gunfight at Carnegie Hall due to Ochs’ verbal sparring with the audience as he tried desperately to play popular songs from his past, sporting a gold lame suit and singing songs by Elvis, Buddy Holly and others. “Phil thought that America had no future—any good would come from its past, so he celebrated this earlier time”, pianist Lincoln Mayorga offered.
He wore the Elvis suit, but it was more inspired by Liberace, who was so flamboyant in Vegas, but so popular. Phil was trying to find the answer. He even endorsed the music of Merle Haggard, the darling of the Right-wing at the time. He realized that Haggard had become a more effective voice for the Right than any so far on the Left, and he wanted to capture that. We played “Okie from Muskogee” and the audience just hated it. (4)

Mayorga’s primary memory of the event was the bomb scare that was called in half-way through the concert. Phil, who’d been drinking wine to wash down uppers all evening, was onstage for an acoustic segment, alternating with the full band’s sets, and a police officer informed Mayorga about the bomb threat. He ordered that Phil close up early and tell the audience to exit. Mayorga went onstage and sat at the piano to get Ochs’ attention:
Phil came over to tune his guitar and I leaned over and whispered in his ear, telling him about the seriousness of the situation. Phil slowly looked up at me, looking deep into my eyes and then put on his shit-eating grin. He slyly asked, ‘Are you prepared to die for rock-n-roll?’. And then he went and sang another song or two before coming off stage.

To the point of Ochs’ desperate need to reach back into the past—his own and that of the nation—we find his final album, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits of 1970. Not a ‘Best Of’ collection at all, but ten new songs, many of which indicate the genres of his youth. One can hear strains of Conway Twitty, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, even a Chevrolet commercial, all bracketed by the telling “One Way Ticket Home” and the very somber “No More Songs”. The album cover, of course featured Ochs in his Elvis suit and inside the liner notes jibe ‘50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong’, a self-deprecating take on the claim by Elvis’ record label that ‘50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong’ in that artist’s press. By contrast, Phil’s record sales were pitiful and his contract was quietly cancelled. Mayorga reports that the last time he saw Ochs was in 1973, when he was called to perform with him at the Troubadour, an unrehearsed gig which was not without problems. “But I never dreamt that it would be the last time I’d see Phil; I thought it would go on forever”, Mayorga recalled soberly.

As the Vietnam war slowly came to a bloody, grinding halt, Ochs staged several ‘The War is Over’ concerts which featured many name performers in both folk and rock music, the largest of which occurred in New York’s Central Park in 1975. He would also travel to Chile and befriend the great songwriter Victor Jara. Shortly thereafter, the CIA-backed coupe would take the lives of Jara and thousands of others; this was a terminal assault to the faltering Ochs. By 1976, unable to prevail in this battle on every front, Phil Ochs would die by his own hand.

The protest song’s grandest voice dared to speak back to the criminal Nixon administration, uncovering and exposing with anger and wry humor. He alerted his audiences to corruption and brutality and especially to the right-wing’s manipulation of ‘the American dream’. Ironically, he also warned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. He dared us to care, at the expense of himself. And now, the silence has become deafening.

Noted folksinger Holly Near, who’d worked with Ochs on a number of occasions, recently spoke of her feelings about the star-crossed topical singer:
The world hurt him. Artists who do this work must figure out how to articulate the broken heart of humanity—but do so without hurting themselves, without losing themselves in the process. (5)


REFERENCES:

(1) Ochs, Phil, “The Need for Topical Music”, Broadside #22, March 1963; source: Cunningham, Sis, Red Dust and Broadsides: A piece of People’s History in Songs, poems and Prose, self-published, 1990, page 37.

(2) from the author’s interview with Lincoln Mayorga, Chatham New York, 6/19/09.

(3) excerpts, court transcript, Chicago, 1968.

(4) from the author’s interview with Lincoln Mayorga, Chatham New York, 6/19/09.

(5) from the author’s interview with Holly Near, 11/7/09.

---John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York City. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book ‘THE CULTURAL WORKERS: RADICAL ARTS AND REVOLUTIONARY ARTISTS IN THE USA, 1900-TODAY’ - www.flamesofdiscontent.org

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